Who Is Wise?

Sermon delivered February 10, 2012, by Rabbi Barry H.D. Block

This morning, before I had put the finishing touches on tonight’s sermon, I heard two segments on public radio, one right after the other, very different from one another, but both mysteriously — should I say coincidentally – directly to the point of my message.
The first was a news story about the ethical treatment of chickens on egg farms.  Two men were interviewed.  The first, an animal rights activist, spoke of the inhumane conditions of chickens, penned into small coops, piled one on top of the other, in dank and dusty buildings.  The second man, an egg producer, talked about the hardships of making a living.  Giving chickens more space would cost more money, and the farmer opposed regulations demanded by the animal rights activist.  Then, the story took an unexpected turn.  The egg farmer and the animal activist got to know one another.  The activist no longer saw the farmer as merely an oppressor of chickens, but rather also as a fellow American, struggling to pay the bills.  The farmer came to see the activist not merely as a nuisance, out to destroy his livelihood, but as a person sincerely concerned about the welfare of God’s creatures.  A compromise was reached.  Each man spoke admiringly of the other.
Wow.  That is unexpected.  In America today, and perhaps throughout the world, people on opposite sides of arguments increasingly keep their distance.  And that’s putting it mildly.  Liberals and conservatives hurl invectives at one another; but neither hears what the others have to say, since the conservatives are on Fox News and talk radio and the liberals on MSNBC and NPR.  Temple Beth-El is an exception, but most houses of worship are overwhelmingly made up of either conservatives or liberals, not both.  Most of us only listen to people who already think like we do.
Not Moses.  Perhaps the most remarkable part of tonight’s Torah portion is that Moses listens to his father-in-law.  Jethro is not an Israelite.  In fact, he’s the Priest of Midian.  In other words, he’s an idolater.   In fact, he’s not just an idol worshiper, he’s a priest of idol worship!  And Moses is the spokesman for the one God of Israel.  Nevertheless, when Jethro sees the way that Moses is handling his leadership role, he offers constructive criticism.  And Moses takes his advice.  In fact, Moses changes his whole way of doing business.
Just like the egg farmer with the animal rights activist, Moses recognizes that he has something to learn from Jethro, a man whose most deeply-held religious values are the opposite of his own.    This week’s Torah portion also includes the Ten Commandments.  The ancient Rabbis ask:  How can the central commandments of the Torah be contained in a portion that bears the name of an idolatrous priest?  Perhaps the answer is that the portion is named Yitro, or Jethro, as an invitation for the world – for non-Jews, like Jethro – to learn and heed the Ten Commandments.  Perhaps the name honors Moses, for opening his mind to learn from one so different from himself.
Perhaps Ben Zoma, one of the Rabbis of the Mishnah, was thinking of Moses, when he wrote:  “Who is wise?  The one who learns from everyone.”  This teaching, from Pirkei Avot, sounds nice.  But it’s not so easy to do.  So many conflicts in our society, and in our own lives, might be resolved if we could hear one another.  If we were wise, we would learn from everyone.
Recent years have brought a magnificent discovery to America and the world:  Tremendous stores of natural gas have been found in shale, abundant here in the United States and even in Israel’s territorial waters.  Natural gas is cleaner than oil or coal.  Gas producers are eager to extract the natural gas – yes, to make good money – but also to reduce our country’s reliance on imported oil.
Environmentalists oppose “fracking,” the process by which that natural gas is extracted from the shale.  Legitimate concerns have been raised about the potential dangers of pumping tremendous amounts of water into the ground to get the Earth to yield its natural gas.   Many environmentalists demand a ban on “fracking.”
But Ben Zoma taught that the wise person learns from everyone.  Can the environmentalist learn from the natural gas producer?  Can the oil company learn from the Sierra Club?  Can we adopt strict standards that protect our environment, while also benefiting from this abundant source of cleaner fuel, available right here in the United States?  Can we redouble our efforts to develop fully renewable energy sources – the power of the sun and the win and the waves – even as we tide ourselves over on natural gas?
The stakes are high.  Right now, our country imports far too much oil and gas, sending billions upon billions of dollars out of the United States, money that ends up in the hands of Saudi Kings and Princes.  Those Arab leaders, supposedly our friends, are not democratically elected.  In order to stay in power, they pay a King’s ransom, literally, with our money, to the most radical and violent elements in the Muslim world, the very terrorists who threaten our peace and the security of our planet.  We must get off of imported petroleum, the sooner the better.  At the same time, we must be careful with our own water and air and soil.  Irresponsible operators have given the entire natural gas industry a bad name.  Polluted water causes cancer, and many ask if all that pumping is responsible for earthquakes.  The environmentalists must be wise and the oil companies must be wise, and they must learn from one another.  America depends on that wisdom.
In our personal lives, too, we would be wise to turn to unlikely sources for wisdom.
Six months or so ago, Sophie, Aliza, and Willie sat with me in my office and we studied this week’s portion.  We also talked about the meaning of Bat Mitzvah, about what becoming an adult is all about.   I am blessed to have this conversation with young people and their parents almost every week.  We discuss the privileges and responsibilities that mark the adulthood of the parents in the room. I ask the young person, as I asked Sophie:  “Who decides what you do?”  The answer, of course, is that Aliza and Willie decide what Sophie does, except that, as she gets older, they increasingly let her decide certain things for herself.  Then, I ask the young person, “And who decides what your parents do?”  “Well, they do, of course.”  So, I ask:  “Do you suppose that means your grandparents no longer have opinions about what your parents do?”  That one gets a laugh.
Moses’ father-in-law certainly has an opinion about what Moses should do.  Moses could ignore him, but Moses listens.  The wise person learns from everyone.  And everyone means even our parents, and even our children.
And so, I turn to the second story I heard on the radio this morning, this one an excerpt from “Story Corps,” a program that takes oral histories, sharing the lives of ordinary people.
The young couple laughed as they remembered their first reactions when his father and her mother tried to set them up on a date.  Both young adults were mortified.  Go out with a guy recommended by her mother?  Out of the question!  But the situation was complicated.  Having undergone expensive cancer treatments that bankrupted her, the mother had lost her home, and was moving into a rented duplex.  Striking up a conversation with the landlord, she announced:  “I have a single daughter.”  And he responded:  “Oh, my son is single, too.”  The parents suggested that the kids meet and go out, but the young man and young woman wouldn’t hear of it.  So the parents hatched a plan:  He would ask his son to come help this poor cancer patient move into her new apartment.  When he arrived, he was stunned when the woman introduced herself as his future mother-in-law.  Mind you, he hadn’t yet met his future wife, but of course the young woman was there to help her mom move.  Ambushed by their own parents, the young man and young woman struggled to be polite.  But all that moving took several hours, long enough to get to know one another.   Afterwards, exhausted and thirsty, they went out for a drink and never looked back.  Now, a couple of years later, as they celebrate a wedding anniversary, they are grateful to their parents, grateful that they were wise enough to learn from everyone, even their parents.
Yes, “Learn from everyone” means everyone, even our own parents, as hard as that may be for the teenagers, and even the adults, among us.  On the radio, the woman describes her gratitude at having heeded her mother’s advice, opening herself up to meeting this particular man.  The months after their meeting had been the most difficult time in her life.  Her mother’s cancer treatments, though devastatingly expensive, were not effective.  Her mother became increasingly ill, and then she died.  The landlord’s son, who became her boyfriend, then her fiancé and ultimately her husband, stood at her side at her time of greatest need.  And the young man, too, had found the love of his life because he was able to learn from everyone, even his father.
Learning from a beloved mentor, from a teacher we respect, is easy.  But Ben Zoma said that the wise person is the one who learns from kol adam, from everyone.  Let us seek wisdom, even from those who are very different from us, and perhaps especially from those whose wisdom is hardest to hear.  Then, like Moses before us, may we find God’s blessing